Saturday, 22 December 2018

Season of the witches… Suspiria (1977)

This blog goes where it will, following random trails dictated by the contents of my actual dusty video boxes – they do exist, they’re in the loft – and the directions they take are very often backwards to things I’ve missed. Suspiria has fascinated me for a long time, probably since the NME and Sounds raved about the score from Italian prog band Goblin or, just as likely when the 15-year old me saw the eye-catching poster.

Now we have a new Suspiria with music from Thom Yorke and an all new take on the tale it felt I was long overview a trip to see this in the Prince Charles Cinema just off Leicester Square which led me to purchasing the Blu-ray restored version and to ditch my off-TV VHS recording. I’ve previously raved about Dario Argento’s directorial style on The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, and here he is in overdrive with a film packed full of high-quality atmospherics, visceral set design and some extraordinary cinematography from Luciano Tovoli.

Even though there are some graphic segments, there’s so much more uneasiness created by the controlled build up of tension and the casting of the odd and unusual figures; the old women who work in the dance school, the young boy in a period satin pageboy suit, a giant servant who looks so much less fearsome after recent dental work (ha, Dario, ha-ha) and the blind pianist with the Doberman guide dog…

 The sets are extreme, like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang on the baddest of trips with reds and yellows, and blocks of deep blue all marking the environment as in-human and uncomfortable. The dancing school sweet Suzy Bannion (the perfectly-cast Jessica Harper) finds herself in is just about believable, but those colours paint a warning from the start.

Tovoli’s camera makes the absolute most of these gifts with acute angles, and massive overhead shots that seem to encompass impending doom whilst at the same time giving the viewer fleeting re-assurance that we’ll be above it… it’s so cruel as we’ll soon be down watching the blood flow and the flesh get ripped.

Then there is the director’s superb use of the score; a character in its own right, that bustles, buzzes and moans creating tension throughout always reverting to a spine-tingling main theme that is not prog exactly but a foretaste of modern composition used ever since. It’s not quite what I expected and genuinely feels out of time, as indeed, does the film.

Jessica Harper, Alida Valli and Joan Bennett
But nothing sends signals quite like the behaviour of odd people and Agento has brought out the disquiet in all of his performers. Even when, in searching for her missing friend, Sara (Stefania Casini), Suzy goes to talk to a psychologist who knows her Dr. Frank Mandel played with a strange intensity by a coca cola guzzling Udo Kier. The conversation is framed by an overhead shot showing the vast, ultra-modern university as if from the wings of a dark bird of prey, the camera swooping closer in as if the two are being watched… there’s no “comfort breaks” in this film and we’re pulled relentlessly on.

The film begins in a downpour as Suzy arrives in Munich to discover that the very elements seem to be against her… this foreshadowing is nothing compared to the reception she gets at the school as a young woman pushes past her and runs off screaming as if pursued by the hounds of hell. Suzy’s finally welcomed by the senior staff at the Tanz Dance Academy, instructor, Miss Tanner (the excellent Alida Valli) and the headmistress, Madame Blanc (*the* Joan Bennett no less…).  She meets the other students, friendly Sara and alpha school bully Olga (Barbara Magnolfi) who she gets to share an apartment with in town.

It's all very off-kilter and deliberately unsettling with director and musicians hitting the viewer with shock and unease; there’s no time to settle in a film when almost everyone our heroin meets is weird.

Suzy joins the ballet school but what she has not seen is the subsequent death of the girl she met, Patricia Hingle (Eva Axén) who has been killed by unseen forces along with a friend… you can leave the school perhaps but you cannot escape the forces within.

Soon, Suzy herself is overcome by a strange illness and the school doctor, Professor Verdegast (Renato Scarpa) decides that Suzy's anaemia is to be treated with a regular glass of red wine or, something that looks like red wine. Suzy soon finds out more unsettling gossip from Sara as weird events continue such as an infestation of maggots falling down on the girls’ hair which forces them to sleep in the hall where they hear the most revolting snores from an ancient sleeper nearby…

Then Sara goes missing and as Suzy seeks answers from Mandel, she hears of how the school was established by a Greek woman named Helena Markos, who locals believed was a witch. Markos supposedly perished in a fire that destroyed most of the school but, as one of Mandel’s colleagues Professor Milius, explains, a coven is unable to survive without its leader… could it be that witchcraft governs the Academy still?

Well, what do you reckon…?

Dusty Verdict: Suspiria is stone-cold classic of period horror that more than stands the test of time due to the quality of design, soundscapes and direction; a genuine art-house success

The film was based on Suspiria de Profundis by Thomas De Quincey and I look forward to reading that *after* watching the Luca Guadagnino 2018 version for comparison: no matter how good it is I find it hard to think it’ll be as uncanny and unsettling as Argento’s relentless and unpredictable atmospherics.

Tuesday, 16 October 2018

Shadows and dark… The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970)

This was Dario Argento’s first film and shows remarkable restraint in creating a giallo light on bloodshed but high on primal, discomforting terror. As Roger Ebert said in his review of the time, “…its scares are on a much more basic level than in, say, a thriller by Hitchcock. It works mostly by exploiting our fear of the dark.” I’d go further than that and say that it exploits our fear of being surprised, overwhelmed and not being able to fight back let alone control our situation.

At the start of the film, American writer Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante) witnesses an attempted murder in an art gallery; a woman stumbles down the stairs, clutching her chest and falls bleeding onto the floor as her shadowy assailant makes good his escape. Sam sees everything and runs across only to find himself trapped between the interior shop window and another plane of glass in front. Like a fly in a bottle he can’t get in to help the girl and he can’t run away to get help: he can only bang on the windows in hope. It’s a great set piece and is mirrored later when his girlfriend Julia (Suzy Kendall) is alone in their flat and the killer attempts to hack his way in: she can’t escape and is paralysed with fear, trapped with no way forward… your worst nightmare; suspended between mortal fear and the instinct to escape when there is no way out…

These moments are so memorable because they play more on the human cost of horror. It’s all very well showing gore but what really troubles us isn’t the largely not simple revulsion but the moment all our resistance will be futile.

Eva Renzi
Around this powerful sentiment, Argento builds a crafty plot that leaves us guessing all the way through until one of the smartest twists in Giallo leaves us gasping, following a camera-destroying shot so audacious you wonder why no one thought of it before…

But all that’s ahead and there’s no spoilers here.

The victim of the attack, Monica Ranieri (Eva Renzi) recovers in hospital and with her husband Alberto (Umberto Raho) seemingly in the clear, Inspector Morosini (Enrico Maria Salerno) has Sam immediately under suspicion and it’s another basic fear; we’re guilty enough without being assumed so. But this isn’t the only murder/attempted murder and as then viewers have already seen, there has already been one murder with the gloved hands of the culprit seen focusing a camera lens on a young woman who is then found stabbed… before long another follows.

Witness: Tony Musante
Sam is due to return home to America but can’t shake the incident off and begins to dig deeper despite the pleadings of Julia (did I ever mention how Suzy Kendall is practically perfect?).  He visits the owner of a gallery where the first victim, a sales assistant supplementing her income through prostitution… had sold a strange painting just before she was killed.

There’s a clever moment when Argento switches from Sam and Julia looking in shock at the black and white copy and then to the colour original, pulling the camera back to reveal the killer dressed in black leather hat and coat, staring at the image: the power of visual imagery, unsettling emotional response connecting the participants. The killer looks at photographs of the next victim – a woman photographed at a race course – then pulls out a knife, looking once more at the macabre acrylic inspiration on the wall.

Suzy Kendall
Sam visits the strange artist who painted the strange painting and learns little only that the painting was one of a number depicting the violent murder of a woman… how is this connected to the killings? These investigations get him noticed and he’s assaulted after visiting Signore Ranieri… the killer obviously knows him now and this is personal.

A game of bird and mouse ensues with the killer making threatening phone calls to Sam and Julia  with the strange sounds of what turns out to be the titular avian in the background adding to the sense of unease whilst also providing the ultimate “witness”, if only they can find the liar.

There’s constant unease in the everyday with Sam chasing someone the killer into a convention centre only to find it packed full of people wearing the same work clothes… the murderer is hiding in plain sight and could be anyone.

I don't know much about art but I know what I don't like...
Then there is the, inevitable, moment when the killer tries to kill Julia evading police protection and laying siege to the apartment as she tries to overcome the paralysis of fear. It’s horrible stuff and Kendall plays a blinder as she is ultimately saved by the arrival of the – supposedly watchful – police…

But, and it is a very important but, the killer is another classic example of giallo double/triple think and beyond, working with so much with people’s preconceptions and gender role expectations. Now whether this was post-factual rationalisation or planned throughout till makes it valid.

Dusty Video Box Verdict: The ending will hopefully surprise you… but it’s the overall film that is counts and I think it deserves it reputation of genre busting because of its intelligence and overall style: frightening people through atmospherics and uncertainty – out-thinking them! – is always more difficult than just using gore and director Dario Argento succeeds here like few others before or since.

The film is available on Arrow Bluray and is essential for all fans of Giallo and Italian film of the era.